It’s half “Green Acres,” half “Mission: Impossible.” Imagine foreign scientists trying to smuggle rice seeds out of the U.S to China, or digging to unearth the secrets of proprietary strains of corn.
These two cases are part of what the FBI calls the growing threat of agricultural espionage.
“When we think about intellectual property, we might think about software or pharmaceuticals,” says Guy Rub, an intellectual property expert at Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law. “But our food is not just the same kind of food we had 300 years ago. There’s billions and billions of dollars of research and development going into the production of our food.”
Federal officials say there are two fronts in the fight against agricultural piracy: the lab and the field.
In 2013, federal officials say Weiqiang Zhang, a former rice breeder at a commercial lab in Kansas, was caught trying to help visiting Chinses scientists smuggle proprietary rice seeds out of the country. He was convicted earlier this year and awaits sentencing.
Also in 2013, another Chinese scientist was accused of digging up “parent” corn seeds, which are used to make seeds sold on the commercial market, with hopes of bringing them back to China. For that crime, Mo Hailong pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.
The threat of foreign nationals stealing agricultural secrets is especially troubling, Rub says, because of reverse engineering. That’s the legal principal that allows people to independently extract information and reproduce it themselves without running afoul of trade secret laws.
“I can imagine that once it gets to other countries, it’s way more difficult to prevent that from going on, so it’s more dangerous for those companies if that technology goes out of the country," Rub says. "The FBI treats it as a national security issue.”